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Sunday, February 8, 2015

The best films of 2014

Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
With the awards season in full swing, I'm ready to weigh in on my favorite films of the past year. 2014 was an excellent year for movies, and that shows in the truly tough-to-handicap Oscar races. Luckily, I have so far seen six of the eight Best Picture nominees, and they are all worth the time. I've missed American Sniper and Selma, but plan to see the former very soon. As for the latter, I'm just not that interested in a dramatic alteration of Civil Rights history, so I'm skipping it.

1. Boyhood - How anybody can not be completely blown away by the achievement of this 12-year project by Richard Linklater is beyond me. It's a drama about a kid growing up, in which all the actors actually age in real time through the course of the filming. More than that - it's a really great life story, beautifully performed. Patricia Arquette will win the Oscar for this one, and if Linklater doesn't, it's simply wrong.

Agata Trzebuchovska in Ida
2. Ida - Gorgeously shot in black and white, this Polish production was rightly nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. It is heartbreakingly beautiful, deep, original and refreshingly unresolved. Your local library probably has a copy you can borrow for free.

Michael Keaton in Birdman
3. Birdman - I expect this to win Best Picture, but who knows? From the opening credits, the solo improvisational drum soundtrack is just plain brilliant. The film's immersive shooting style draws you immediately into the has-been main character's desperation and never lets you go. Keaton has a shot at Best Actor, except the competition is brutal. I have one quibble with the movie, which is that I can't understand why they felt it necessary to tack on a blow-job for social media in the midst of an existential struggle. Sorry, the rest of this movie is just not so superficial as the message it pushes that you don't matter if you're not being re-tweeted, and that brought it down - unnecessarily, in my estimation.

4. The Imitation Game - This was the film that was recommended to me more than anything else this season, and it does not disappoint. Benedict Cumberbatch deserves the Oscar for  his highly nuanced portrayal of a conflicted gay autistic savant who paid as dearly for his sexual proclivities as for his OCD pursuit of a machine that can think. Keira Knightley is tolerable but not on the same level as her co-star. Daunting British accents for the hard-of-hearing; otherwise very enjoyable and extremely moving.

5. Force Majeure - A Swedish film shot in French Switzerland will never do well in the US market - however, this is exactly the sort of movie that shows what Europe does so much better than Hollywood (and apparently, always will). Force Majeure is a Hitchcockian thriller about a bad marriage that makes you very uncomfortable about life, civilization, humanity, and child-rearing without showing you anything shocking or truly negative. The actors in it are amazing. Borrow this one from the library, too.

6. The Grand Budapest Hotel - Super-quirky, especially when it goes (literally) off the rails into a sledding fantasy. Anything this original that gets an Oscar nod should stand very proud. Will not win, however.

Mark Ruffalo (center) and
Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher
7. Foxcatcher - Classic Indie film - quasi-major actors, a true story that's stranger than fiction, topics nobody thought they could be interested in (wrestling, disapproving mothers). Steve Carell's performance as nut-job billionaire John DuPont is career-making; Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo are terrific (as always). A real downer, but vividly great.

Jones and Redmayne in The Theory of Everything
8. The Theory of Everything - I'll admit, this one disappointed me, though it is still a very good movie. The problem is, it's about Stephen Hawking's first marriage - not about his work in physics. It's a romance. Which is fine, once you accept that it will not get cosmic in any real way. On the other hand, Eddie Redmayne (who is generally expected to win Best Actor) does bring the extremely fascinating younger Hawking startlingly back to life (the older Hawking is still with us), and Felicity Jones is completely irresistible as his first love, Jane.

9. Whiplash - Who knew music school could be like boot camp, only worse? I'm a huge fan of jazz drumming, but this is not the way to form a great artist. Another Indie-style film featuring terrific performances, especially by the Oscar-nominated and likely to win Best Supporting Actor J.K. Simmons as the brutal taskmaster.

10. Big Eyes - I have a bias in the case of this film, because it almost impossibly combines the three extremely disparate pursuits that are at the core of my three careers: art, newspapering, and fraud. The story of con man Walter Keane, as told by a gossip columnist nicely voiced by Danny Huston, is not shocking. Keane's fraudulent pose as the artist behind his wife's kitschy paintings is fairly well known now - but it is shocking to learn, via a tour-de-force, Oscar-nominated performance by Amy Adams, that Margaret Keane believed completely in her art as the true expression of her soul. An unexpected delight, with director Tim Burton's usual surreal flourishes.

Special Mention: The Lunchbox is a 2013 film out of Bollywood that was missing at last year's Oscars because India refused to nominate it. Still, it earned my top rating of four stars for its combination of charming romance and rare entry into the day-to-day life of working and middle-class Indians. The plot focuses around an unlikely glitch in the Six-Sigma perfection of India's system of "dabba wallas" - the largely illiterate deliverymen who transport millions of home-made lunches to office-bound workers' desks every day. The delivery error leads, naturally, to quite unexpected love. A must-see movie for anyone with a heart or an interest in everyday India.

Irrfan Khan in The Lunchbox


Roger Owen Green said...

I have to take exception to the dismissal, sight unseen, of Selma on dramatic grounds, especially when it could at least equally be said of American Sniper, and for that matter The Imitation Game and several other films this season.

Margo singer said...

David, thanks for the reviews....planning on seeing Ida tonight and Birdman tomorrow...and I also think you should see Selma!!

david brickman said...

By popular demand, I will see "Selma." Thanks for reading and commenting! - db

John Rowen said...

Dear Dave - -

I know it's all over with the Oscars - - and I have forgotten who won. But thanks for such a well-written top ten. Thanks, too for showing some movies that did not make it to the metroplex cinemas.